When I was pitching stuff for the final issue of 2013, one of the pieces I suggested was a sum up of how the housing market changed last year. This was just before the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation released their vacancy rate figures for Regina and all indications were pointing towards good news.
So before Whitworth officially signed off on what I’d be writing for that issue (which turned out to be nothing) I scurried off and did a couple interviews. In the end, that sum up of the housing market became a blurb in January’s “Ear In Review” issue and I only had space to use two tiny quotes from over an hour’s worth of conversations.
Always bugs me to leave so much on the cutting room floor, so here’s one of those interviews I did in anticipation of a much longer housing feature.¹ It’s with Peter Gilmer of Regina’s Anti-Poverty Mission. I’ve spoken to him about housing many, many times over the last few years so it seemed appropriate to check in with him now that CHMC says that our vacancy rate has reached 1.8 per cent — up from a low of 0.6 per cent just a couple years ago.
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Prairie Dog: So, the CMHC numbers are out and our vacancy rate is 1.8 per cent. Meanwhile, council is talking about how many new rental units are being built, city administration is talking about how the market has turned around… I guess it’s time to break out the champagne, eh?
Peter Gilmer: Well, obviously it’s cold comfort for the many people who are looking for affordable housing right now. It’s still way below the three per cent balanced market.² And the other interesting thing is that there’s always been the assumption that there’s this straight out correlation between increases in the vacancy rate and affordability. And what we see with the CMHC numbers is that while there has been improvements in terms of the vacancy rate, the actual increases in rental costs are not slowing down any. So while there might be more availability there’s still a long way to go on the affordability side. For folks like those who were recently given notice at the Viva Apartments this is cold comfort with the thought of having to look for a new affordable place when that just isn’t available.
PD: When I spoke to city administration about housing, one of the things they spoke about were the incentives that the city and provincial government have been offering. What do you think? Is the change in the market just because rents have gone up so much that now land owners can afford to build rental units? Or do you think the city can share some of the credit?
PG: There’s been a focus at both the civic and particularly at the provincial level on market incentives for rental unit development. And we’ve never said that that’s not part of the solution. But there also has to be a much stronger commitment to put supports in place for social housing and low-cost housing. So the request that we and other community groups have made as part of the housing committee’s commitments along with the commitment to have a vacancy rate at three per cent by 2017, that within two years we’d like to see the development of 500 new low-cost rentals in the city as well.
PD: What do you think of that new housing committee? They’re talking about Housing First.
PG: What we’ve said, as the Anti-Poverty Ministry, in terms of Housing First, for some targeted populations it is beneficial. But it certainly is not a panacea when it comes to affordable housing. Nothing beats putting resources into the development of social housing in the community.
PD: Now at this point, the vacancy isn’t three per cent. But it is arguably going in the right direction. And council’s going to be a little triumphant, especially if we get up to that three per cent number, but you’ve been hammering on this for as long as I’ve been living in this city. Is it a little bit frustrating that this is going to be promoted as council’s triumph and not civil society’s triumph?
PG: No. It’s to be expected that when there’s any positive movement that governments involved are going to take credit for it. And I think that’s fair. Certainly I think that community organizations know that they’re playing an important role and that there is an important role for community advocacy on housing issues. But I guess in the bigger picture of any triumphalism around it, I would say that while we are seeing some modest improvements on the availability side, we’re not seeing the same positive indicators either on the affordability side or on the quality side in many cases. There’s still a large stock of sub-standard, ill-maintained properties that need to be brought up to a higher standard. So, you have to see some positives where they can be found but we’re a long way from where groups such us ours would like to be on the housing front.
¹ The other interview I did for this feature was with Diana Hawryluk, the city’s director of planning and sustainability, and with Jennifer Barrett, the city’s senior housing planner. It is MUCH longer and I still haven’t finished transcribing it and I might only be able post excerpts from it here as a result.
² The CMHC considers a three per cent vacancy rate to be ideal for a city’s rental market. City council has stated that they are aiming to get to three per cent by 2017.